Dance of the Puppet – Chapter 26

purple bookIsrael Book Shop presents Chapter 26 of a new online serial novel, Dance of the Puppet, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters. 

Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications. 

On the day Sari Schreibman began working in the office, a letter arrived that threw Yael into a frenzy. The new secretary placed it on the principal’s desk, and Yael, who saw it there, asked for permission to open it.

“What do they want from us now?” she wondered aloud. “Can these be the results of the state tests already? I doubt it. It should be a much bigger envelope.”

Yaffa looked at the official envelope with the unfamiliar letterhead and shrugged. Yael pulled out a single sheet of paper and perused it closely.

“I don’t believe it!” she cried in a tone that even brought Chana running from the outer office. “Are they normal? Tell me, what was wrong? Chana!” she called. “Please get Naomi Bergsas, the history coordinator, this minute.”

Chana quickly checked the class schedules and then replied, “She’s in class.”

“So pull her out! Give this year’s class a retest?! They’ve gone too far!”

The issue must have been very urgent, because Chana suddenly sprang into action. Within a few seconds, Mrs. Bergsas was standing in the office; only now did Yaffa see who she was.

The teacher’s jaw dropped when she read the letter that Yael handed her. “That is so, so unfair,” she whispered in shock. “Total chutzpah, what they are doing there. They told us it would be fine!”

“Well, it wasn’t fine,” Yael said morosely. “I told you then to check into it very well; someone here wasn’t responsible enough about this.”

“What’s not responsible? We didn’t get an official letter about the new system; they just announced it at a conference for history teachers!”

“So what?”

Naomi Bergsas took a deep breath. “Listen, Yael, this is exactly what happened,” she said. “At the beginning of last year, we heard that this year, they are going to change the format of the twelfth-grade state history test. You know that there are several learning issues in this year’s class, so the teachers suggested that we give them the test last year, in eleventh grade, based on the old format of the tests.”

“And then you verified that this would be one hundred percent acceptable?”

“Yes, I clarified it at the time with the secretary of Ehud Shazar, the supervisor, and she said that would be fine. The girls took the tests, we got the results—and all of a sudden now they’re telling us the grades aren’t valid and the girls won’t be able to get diplomas.” She sighed and looked at the letter again. “They have no problem with the fact that the girls were tested in eleventh grade instead of in twelfth, but rather with the fact that this year’s class needs to take the upgraded version of the test, and they didn’t do that. Oh, and look—Ehud Shazar himself signed this letter.”

“Sounds impressive.”

“Very impressive.” Naomi slumped into a chair, reading the letter yet again. “In other words, the twelfth graders are going to have to take another state history test at the end of this year.”

“You can review the material with them again,” Yaffa said quietly.

“And add an enormous amount of new material to prepare them for the upgraded format! It’s impossible to do that, especially on such short notice!”

Yaffa was quiet. She had no idea how much material was covered by the history test, and she preferred not to interfere with things she didn’t know about.

“I’ll call his secretary again,” Naomi said, clearly frustrated. “In the meantime, let’s not tell the girls anything.”

She went out into the main office, and Yaffa pulled the letter, which she had not yet read, toward her.

Yael sat, gazing out the window. “She’s wasting her time calling,” she said. “When Shazar decides something, you can’t budge him an inch. Even if Naomi has cultivated a friendly relationship with his secretary over the years, it’s useless if he’s firmly decided about something.”

***

“It really was useless,” Yaffa told Elchanan the following evening. “And we even sent a fax to this Ehud, all official-looking, with a plea that he retract—but that didn’t help either.”

“Ehud?”

“Yes, he’s a professor or a supervisor at the Education Ministry, I think, and I understand that he’s a very tough guy. Yael told me that his office sent us back a short, sharp fax that said there’s nothing to talk about, or something like that. It’s complicated…” She sighed.

“When you said Ehud,” her husband remarked, ignoring for a minute the conundrum his wife was describing, “I thought you were referring to me.”

“You?”

“Didn’t I tell you? At Moreshet, every sales agent has a nickname. I’m called Ehud, and I’ve gotten so used to the name already that I found myself turning around in the street once this week when someone called that name.”

“Ehud’s not a common name,” Yaffa mused.

“Right.”

“Why did they choose such a name for you?”

Elchanan chuckled. “Do I know? My boss has a fetish with biblical names, or something like that. But it’s a nice name.”

“Yes,” Yaffa agreed, and then added, “But I never heard of agents using other names.”

“I have. It’s like a code system, and there are offices that like to use it.”

Yaffa still did not understand why it was necessary to use a code name when a person had a perfectly nice name of his own, but she didn’t ask. Instead, she went back to the previous topic. “I think I have to call him.”

“Who?”

“Ehud Shazar, the history professor. Yael said he lives in Raanana. I think I’ll call him at home. I’m sure it can’t be too hard to get his number.”

“I can help you. But are you sure it’s acceptable, to call him at home?”

“Why not?” Yaffa asked. “When you work at demanding jobs, it sometimes means taking work home with you. People call me here at home all the time. Don’t you get work-related calls at home?”

“My job is not so demanding right now,” her husband noted with a smile. “Should I try and get you the number?”

“Yes, please.”

***

“Yaffa Levinsky’s asked about you twice, Ima,” Malka Mann said as she distastefully surveyed the food on the plastic tray. “She’d like very much to come and visit you.”

“Let Ima rest a bit,” Shaul interjected. “If she says she doesn’t want visitors, she doesn’t want them. Don’t nudge her!”

Malka scowled at Shaul. What did he think, that she’d become a nudnik for the fun of it? In her opinion, Ima needed to see more people. She understood that her mother had no interest in a procession of teachers coming to see firsthand how feeble she was and how little she could do. But Yaffa was something entirely different.

“Yaffa’s very sweet,” Adina Kotzker said slowly. “Maybe, at the beginning of next week…We’ll see.”

“My children also want to come and see you, Ima. Mimi, especially, misses you very much.”

“Do you want some of the food that Gitty sent, Ima?” Shaul asked loudly, rummaging through the pile of boxes from his wife. Did Malka not realize that Ima didn’t want to see even the grandchildren? Why was she pressuring so much? “There’s fruit soup, apple kugel, and—”

Adina waved her hand. “Thank you. And thank Gitty for me also. But the…hospital food is enough for me.” And it’s very hard for me to eat it.

“Stop talking about food all the time,” Malka told her brother. “And tell Gitty she doesn’t have to send so much. Ima doesn’t eat any of it.”

“We have to make sure Ima eats,” Shaul shot back in rebuke. “The appetite comes with the food, right, Ima?”

“Depends when,” his mother replied, smiling wanly.

“You didn’t understand me.” Malka laughed. “The problem is that if Ima doesn’t eat the food you bring, I eat it all instead of her. And Gitty, we all know, cooks too well, so then I get in trouble. Now do you get what I’m saying?”

“Aha. Now I get it.” Shaul smiled.

“Abba will be here soon,” their mother said suddenly. “You’d better go home. You’re both here too much…lately.”

“Of course; we don’t want to leave you here yourself, Ima,” Shaul replied. “Baruch Hashem, you’re feeling better, but you’re still very weak. How will you manage on your own?”

“There are nurses.” Adina swallowed.

“Yes, and we’ve seen how much time it takes for them to get here, with all their good intentions.” Malka was adamant. “There’s nothing to talk about, Ima. You can’t be left alone.”

“But you…could collapse, chalilah…and so can Abba.” She sighed, and the muscle over her left eye began to twitch. “It’s hard for me to see you tearing yourselves apart like this.”

“We aren’t tearing ourselves apart!” Shaul protested. He thought for a moment, and then said slowly, “But if it will make you feel better, my Menachem can come spend some of the nights here with you instead of me. Then you won’t have to be so concerned about us. Would you like that?”

Malka nodded in agreement. “And Mimi would be happy to come whenever she’s needed, too. She’ll be wonderful, Ima.”

“Well, maybe…” Adina said, her head lolling tiredly. “I have my pride, but sometimes…you have to cave in…”

***

“Ehud?”

“Yes.” Elchanan immediately identified the caller as Menashe.

“There’s a great potential deal, something in Beer Sheva. I saw an ad about a sale of an apartment with an estate, and I would want you to be there tomorrow to check it out, before eight in the morning.”

“No problem.”

“It will be a bit complicated to get there by bus, eh?”

“I’ll manage,” Elchanan replied quietly, sticking to his decision to be an efficient, assiduous worker who never complained. Except when there was no choice.

“No, there’s no need. Go over to the Avis branch near you. They’re open until nine. There’s a Mazda waiting there for you for the next week. By the way, have you thought about buying a car? Maintenance would be on us, and we could help you get good terms for a loan.”

“That would be fantastic.” Elchanan’s eyebrows couldn’t go any higher even if they wanted to. “I’ll go get the car now. Tell Mati I said thank you.”

“No problem.”

“Just give me the exact address of the apartment in Beer Sheva. Up to how much do you want to spend?”

“Thirty thousand shekel. We trust your intuition about it.”

Elchanan smiled. “I got it. Thank you.”

“Good luck.”

***

“Ehud?”

“Yes?”

“Do you want a cup of coffee?”

At home, Ehud Shazar took off his horribly uncomfortable professor glasses and put on his old ones with the thick metal frames. He sat down on the recliner, one foot stuck into an orthopedic slipper that his chiropractor highly recommended and the other foot—clad only in a sock—crossed over his right knee. He scanned the daily paper, and didn’t try to figure out how things would look through the lens of history in another hundred years, which his students were probably sure he did.

Not receiving a response, his wife tried again. “Ehud, do you want a cup of coffee?”

“Oh!” Her husband looked up from the newspaper. “Yes, thank you, Miriam. And make it strong.” He tossed the paper onto the couch opposite him and closed his eyes, opening them only when he heard his wife’s footsteps approaching and the spoon clinking in the glass as she stirred.

“Sweet and Low,” she said. “Because if your sugar numbers are not better at the next visit, then…”

“I’m at risk of having the doctor get angry at me,” the professor completed the sentence. “Yes, I know that.”

“At age sixty-seven, you’re not getting any younger,” she said firmly. “And at one point, we’ll have to come to terms with the fact that we’re beginning to age.”

He laughed and was about to say something when the phone rang. “It must be Dorit,” Miriam said as she left the room to answer the call. “She probably wants to apologize for not coming today.”

A moment later, she returned holding the cordless phone, a look of surprise in her eyes.

“Some girl, I think,” Miriam said, her voice low to prevent the caller from hearing her. “Or maybe just a young woman. I thought it was a wrong number, but she claims she needs to speak to Professor Ehud Shazar urgently.”

A deep crease formed between her husband’s eyebrows as he took the phone. “Yes?”

There was a few seconds of quiet. Shazar didn’t know that in that time, his caller was completing another chapter of Tehillim.

Yaffa quickly finished the perek and then began to speak.

“Good evening, professor. This is Yaffa Levinsky, the principal of Shaarei Binah High School.”

The crease between Shazar’s eyebrows deepened. “Shaarei Binah? Which school is that?”

“It’s in Jerusalem. A Bais Yaakov high school. We got a letter from you regarding the state tests in history.”

“Well, I’m not up to date on the particular details. What’s the issue?”

“We were told…” She hesitated. “We were told that you want us to give a retest on the general history exam.”

Shazar’s mind cleared. Oh, yes. The history state tests in that high school. He knew exactly what this Yaffa Levinsky was talking about. “Oh, absolutely. This year’s class is supposed to be tested with the new format, and all sorts of tricks won’t work here. Your high school did something interesting, but we decided that it’s not acceptable to us.”

“But we were told that it would be fine, and the girls even got their grades back already.” Yaffa knew she sounded like a stubborn little girl, but she had nothing to lose. When this conversation came to an end, so would her efforts to resolve the issue. If so, she was ready to give it all she had. “There was a misunderstanding here. Our high school did not get an official notice of the change of format.”

“Misunderstanding or not, that’s the situation, and there’s nothing to do about it.” Shazar stirred his coffee. “And excuse me, madam, but for such matters, you should be calling the test bureau. I’m not used to receiving calls at home.”

“Yes, I’m also speaking from home,” the young principal said apologetically, “And I know that sometimes it’s very tiring when work issues overflow into the house. I’m really sorry, but when my assistant called your office, they said that the professor doesn’t take any calls, so I decided to try you at home now.”

“So what do you want?”

“The girls already studied the material last year, and the test bureau sent them the tests. Because other students are being tested this year in a different format, does that mean our girls have to start all over again?”

“Why not?”

“Because that will be very hard for them. They haven’t been learning history for several months already, and to suddenly drop this load on them…”

“There’s no reason in the world why your students should be any different from the others. If we decided that this year’s twelfth graders are being tested in this format, it won’t help if they were tested last year in the old format. They will have to take the test again.”

Someone squealed in the background. For a moment, the professor thought it was the caller, but he immediately realized that it was a much younger voice—perhaps that of a very young child.

“But as I said, it was a misunderstanding, and—”

“Misunderstanding or not, this is the way it is.” What was left of Ehud Shazar’s coffee was almost cold, and the professor’s last vestiges of patience had dissipated along with the heat. “From now on, I only want high school graduates entering the job market to have one type of diploma, based on one kind of test.”

“But last year…” Yaffa tried again.

“I don’t care what happened last year.” He was irritated now. What was it about this conversation that didn’t allow him to hang up the phone on this annoying caller? “This is this year.”

“I understand,” the young principal said quietly, almost in a whisper.

“Finally.”

“So, perhaps…do you think it would be possible to give a bit of consideration here? It’s not easy for the girls or the teachers to suddenly be informed of a major exam on material the students are not familiar with…” Really, was history going to be the girls’ gateway to future employment opportunities? What would be so terrible if the girls studied it less comprehensively? Or even if they didn’t study it at all? It was too bad she couldn’t tell this Ehud Shazar that even someone who had never taken a state test in her life could have a future. But if she would tell him that, he would probably force all the girls in the whole school to retake all the tests, if only because of the fact that their principal hadn’t taken them.

“A bit of consideration? What does that mean, ‘a bit’?” Shazar noticed his wife standing at his side, a curious, surprised expression on her face.

“That you shouldn’t insist on the girls taking a retest.” Yaffa rocked Bentzy vigorously.

“To forgo the retest completely? Out of the question.”

“So can the professor please try to see what he can do for us? Because if he…” Another tinny wail in the background. “Excuse me,” she said. “I just need to give my baby a pacifier.”

“Remind me of your name again?” the professor asked as he removed his glasses.

“Yaffa Levinsky.”

“And you said you’re the principal of a high school in Jerusalem?”

“Yes.”

He raised his gaze to Miriam, who was trying to follow the conversation, rather unsuccessfully. “Well, Mrs. Levinsky, now is not the time or place. I have to look into this matter a bit further. I’ll be in my office tomorrow from eleven to two; call me then.”

“But they won’t transfer calls to you.”

He passed a weary hand over his forehead. “Tell them that you’re Levinsky; I’ll leave instructions to transfer the call to me.”

“Oh, thank you.”

Shazar pressed the ‘end’ button on the phone and lifted his coffee cup to his lips. “Well, well,” he said to his wife as he put his left foot down on the woven Persian rug. “An interesting conversation, what can I tell you.”

***

“Hi, Shuli.”

“Mimi! How are you? Where were you yesterday?”

“I went to visit my grandmother in the hospital for the first time.”

The girls stood near the large pine tree at the edge of the schoolyard. There was an unspoken agreement between them that they met at this tree every day at recess.

“Great. She agreed that you could come?”

“Uh-huh. My mother had to suddenly run to school, and she called the office and told them to dismiss me so I could take over for her at the hospital.”

“And how did it go?”

“It wasn’t easy,” Mimi said. “But I promised to come again. My grandmother was happy that I came, I think.”

“I can come with you sometimes, if you want,” her loyal friend hastened to volunteer.

“It’s not a matter of if I want,” Mimi said, pulling at a branch. “It depends if my grandmother agrees. She doesn’t have much energy for major visitors.”

“Tell her that I’m not considered major!” Shuli laughed. Then she grew serious. “What about today? Who’s with your grandmother now? Is your mother there?”

“My mother’s teaching today, but my grandfather is there.”

“I think I could take night shifts, if you want,” Shuli offered confidently. “Ask your mother if it comes into the question at all.”

“And what about your mother?”

“I imagine my parents will agree.” Had she even told her mother about her friendship with Mimi? Yes, she believed she had. And although she sincerely wanted only to help and had no ulterior motives, she didn’t think her parents would object if she’d spend a night or two in the hospital room of the principal of Shaarei Binah.

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